By: Jay Atkinson
Reviewed by: Karen Pirnie
Livingston Press, 2007
New England writer Jay Atkinson may seem a strange choice for Livingston Press, but his City in Amber could easily be set in Alabama. Social change and cultural conflicts plague a town with a long history and a defunct textile mill. The accent is different, but the issues confronting Lawrence, Massachusetts, affect towns across Alabama. The book’s historical range helps to universalize it, too: Alabama shared with Massachusetts in the industrial revolution, labor unrest of the early 1900s, and the Great Depression.
Besides raising north-south parallels, Livingston Press introduces a colorful writer into our local literary circle. Atkinson, whose earlier books deal with rugby, ice hockey, and a big-city detective, has been called “the bard of New England toughness.” His latest volume applies that toughness to a sweeping historical epic.
City in Amber presents a fictionalized view of Lawrence from its birth as a tightly controlled mill town to its decayed state as an arsonist’s target. By alternating chapters between the present and four earlier periods, Atkinson builds a tight case comparing the town’s self-righteous founders to the Hispanic gangs burning it down in the 1990s. Today’s gang leader, Kuko Carrero, shares his ruthless disdain for human life with 1848’s Abbott Lawrence, Puritanical founder of the town. Their cynicism is countered by the book’s hero, Joe Glass, whose charming forebear Gabriel Glass saved his boss’s life in 1848, only to be unjustly fired soon afterward.
Recurring symbols and images enliven Atkinson’s conventional hard-boiled crime fiction prose. The clock tower of the long-closed Ayer Mill is the first of these, dedicated in 1910 and restored by wishful urban renewal in the present. Silver cufflinks commemorating the clock tower ceremony in 1910 symbolize the town’s creeping corruption as they eventually pass to a banker’s mistress and finally to gangster Kuko. In contrast, hope shines through a small piece of amber young Gabriel Glass picks up 1848 as it shows up in different pockets through the generations. Flames, destructive but purifying, jump from worker’s riots in 1848 to a mill disaster in 1860, and finally close the book.
Sadly, although Joe Taylor at Livingston Press did a favor to both Atkinson and his readers by publishing City in Amber, the book deserves a more attractive format than its cramped pages and tiny font. City in Amber does not invite you in, but you’ll find a generous, rewarding book behind its unfriendly appearance.
Karen Pirnie is a transplanted New Englander who has taught English at both Auburn-Montgomery and the University of Alabama. She now reads and writes in Montgomery.